Sofia Kovalevskaya

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Sofia Kovalevskaya
Sofja Wassiljewna Kowalewskaja 1.jpg
Sofia Kovalevskaya in 1880
Born (1850-01-15)15 January 1850
Moscow, Russian Empire
Died 10 February 1891(1891-02-10) (aged 41)
Stockholm, Sweden
Alma mater University of Göttingen (PhD; 1874)
Known for Cauchy–Kowalevski theorem
Scientific career
Fields Mathematics, Mechanics
Institutions Stockholm University
Russian Academy of Sciences
Doctoral advisor Karl Weierstrass

Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya (Russian: Со́фья Васи́льевна Ковале́вская), born Sofia Vasilyevna Korvin-Krukovskaya (1850–1891), was a Russian mathematician who made noteworthy contributions to analysis, partial differential equations and mechanics. She was the first major Russian female mathematician and a pioneer for women in mathematics around the world. She was the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe and was also one of the first women to work for a scientific journal as an editor.[1] Her sister was the socialist Anne Jaclard.

There are several alternative transliterations of her name. She herself used Sophie Kowalevski (or occasionally Kowalevsky), for her academic publications. After moving to Sweden, she called herself Sonya.

Background and early education[edit]

Sofia Kovalevskaya (née Korvin-Krukovskaya), was born in Moscow, the second of three children. Her father, Lieutenant General Vasily Vasilyevich Korvin-Krukovsky, served in the Imperial Russian Army as head of the Moscow Artillery before retiring to Palibino, his family estate in Vitebsk province in 1858, when Sophie was eight years old. He was a member of the minor nobility, of mixed Russian–Polish descent (Polish on his father's side), with possible partial ancestry from the Royal Korvin family of Hungary, and served as Marshall of Nobility for Vitebsk province. (There may also have been some Romani ancestry on the father's side.[2])

Her mother, Yelizaveta Fedorovna Shubert (Schubert), descended from a family of German immigrants to St. Petersburg who lived on Vasilievsky island. Her maternal great grandfather was the astronomer and geographer Friedrich Theodor Schubert (1758−1825), who emigrated to Russia from Germany around 1785. He became a full member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science and head of its astronomical observatory. His son, Sophie's maternal grandfather, was General Theodor Friedrich von Schubert (Shubert) [1789−1865), who was head of the military topographic service, and an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as Director of the Kunstkamera museum.

Her parents provided her with a good early education through a private Polish tutor Y.I. Malevich. When she was 11 years old, she was intrigued by an unusual premonition of what she was to learn later in her lessons in calculus; the wall of her room had been papered with pages from lecture notes by Ostrogradsky, left over from her father's student days.[3] After she displayed an unusual, original flair for mathematics, she was provided with a tutor in St. Petersburg (A. N. Strannoliubskii, a well-known advocate of higher education for women), who taught her calculus. During that same period, the son of the local priest introduced her sister Anna to progressive ideas influenced by the "Movement of the 1860's", providing her with copies of radical journals of the time discussing nihilism.[4]

Despite her obvious talent for mathematics, she could not complete her education in Russia. At that time, women there were not allowed to attend universities. In order to study abroad, she needed written permission from her father (or husband). Accordingly, she contracted a "fictitious marriage" with Vladimir Kovalevskij, then a young paleontology student who would later become famous for his collaboration with Charles Darwin. They emigrated from Russia in 1867.[5]

Student years[edit]

In April, 1869, following a brief stay in Vienna, where she attended lectures in physics at the university, she moved to Heidelberg. Through great efforts, she obtained permission to audit classes, with the professors' approval, at the University of Heidelberg, [6], and attended courses in physics and mathematics under such teachers as Hermann von Helmholtz, Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen.

In October 1869, shortly after completing a doctoral course in mechanics in Heidelberg, she visited London with Vladimir, who spent time with his colleagues Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin, while she was invited to attend George Eliot's Sunday salons.[5] There, at age nineteen, she met Herbert Spencer and was led into a debate, at Eliot's instigation, on "woman's capacity for abstract thought". This was well before she made her notable contribution of the "Kovalevskaya top" to the brief list of known examples of integrable rigid body motion (see following section). George Eliot was writing Middlemarch at the time, in which one finds the remarkable sentence: "In short, a woman was a problem which, since Mr. Brooke's mind felt blank before it, could hardly be less complicated than the revolutions of an irregular solid."[7] Kovalevskaya participated in social movements and shared ideas of utopian socialism. In 1871 she traveled to Paris together with her husband in order to attend to the injured from the Paris Commune. Kovalevskaya helped save Victor Jaclard, who was the husband of her sister Ann (Anne Jaclard).

In Octoer 1870, she moved to Berlin, where she took private lessons with Karl Weierstrass, as the university would not even allow her to audit classes. In 1874 she presented three papers—on partial differential equations, on the dynamics of Saturn's rings and on elliptic integrals—to the University of Göttingen as her doctoral dissertation. With the support of Weierstrass, this earned her a doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude, bypassing the usual required lectures and examinations.[5]

She thereby became the first woman in Europe to hold that degree. Her paper on partial differential equations contains what is now commonly known as the Cauchy–Kovalevskaya theorem, which gives conditions for the existence of solutions to a certain class of those equations.

Last years in Germany and Sweden[edit]

Bust by Finnish sculptor Walter Runeberg
Sofia Kovalevskaya's grave, Norra begravningsplatsen

In the early 1880s, Sofia and her husband Vladimir developed financial problems. Sofia wanted to be a lecturer at the university; however, she was not allowed to because she was a woman, despite volunteering to provide free lectures. Soon after, Vladimir started a house building business with Sofia as his assistant. In 1879, the price for mortgages became higher and they became bankrupt. Shortly after, Vladimir got a job offer and Sofia helped neighbors to electrify street lights. Vladimir and Sofia quickly established themselves again financially.[8]

The Kovalevskiys returned to Russia, but failed to secure professorships because of their radical political beliefs. Discouraged, they went back to Germany. Vladimir, who had always suffered severe mood swings, became more unstable, so they spent most of their time apart. Then, for some unknown reason, perhaps it was the death of her father, they decided to spend several years together as an actual married couple. During this time their daughter, Sofia (called "Fufa"), was born. After a year devoted to raising her daughter, Kovalevskaya put Fufa under the care of her older sister, resumed her work in mathematics and left Vladimir for what would be the last time. In 1883, faced with worsening mood swings and the possibility of being prosecuted for his role in a stock swindle, Vladimir committed suicide.[5]

That year, with the help of the mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler, whom she had known as a fellow student of Weierstrass's, Kovalevskaya was able to secure a position as a privat-docent at Stockholm University in Sweden.[5] Kovalevskaya met Mittag-Leffler through his sister, actress, novelist, and playwright Anne Charlotte Edgren-Leffler. Until Kovalevskaya's death the two women shared a close friendship that was interpreted by some authors as a possibly romantic or even sexual relationship.[9]

The following year (1884) she was appointed to a five-year position as "Professor Extraordinarius" (Professor without Chair) and became the editor of Acta Mathematica. In 1888 she won the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Science, for her work on the question: "Mémoire sur un cas particulier du problème de la rotation d'un corps pesant autour d'un point fixe, où l'intégration s'effectue à l'aide des fonctions ultraelliptiques du temps".[5][10] Her submission included the celebrated discovery of what is now known as the "Kovalevskaya top", which was subsequently shown to be the only other case of rigid body motion, beside the tops of Euler and Lagrange, that is "completely integrable".[11]

These results, along with other's such as the Cauchy–Kowalevski theorem and her pioneering role as a female mathematician in an almost exclusively male dominated field have made her the subject of three books, a biography by Koblitz written from the feminist point of view, a biography in Russian by Kochina, and a book about her mathematics by R. Cooke.[12]

In 1889 she was appointed Professor Ordinarius (Professorial Chair holder) at Stockholm University,[6] the first woman to hold such a position at a northern European university.[citation needed] After much lobbying on her behalf (and a change in the Academy's rules) she was granted a Chair in the Russian Academy of Sciences but was never offered a professorship in Russia.

Kovalevskaya wrote several non-mathematical works as well, including a memoir, A Russian Childhood, plays (in collaboration with Duchess Anne Charlotte Edgren-Leffler) and a partly autobiographical novel, Nihilist Girl (1890).

She was involved in the vibrant, politically progressive and feminist movement of late nineteenth-century Russian Nihilism. This involvement caused additional risk in her life, already challenged by the hardships caused by her difficult and underpaid career and exile in various European countries.[6]

She died of influenza in 1891 at age forty-one, after returning from a vacation to Genoa. She is buried in Solna, Sweden, at Norra begravningsplatsen.


Sonya Kovalevsky High School Mathematics Day is a grant-making program of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), funding workshops across the United States which encourage girls to explore mathematics.

The Sonya Kovalevsky Lecture is sponsored annually by the AWM, and is intended to highlight significant contributions of women in the fields of applied or computational mathematics. Past honorees have included Irene Fonseca (2006), Ingrid Daubechies (2005), Joyce R. McLaughlin (2004) and Linda R. Petzold (2003).

The lunar crater Kovalevskaya is named in her honor.

The Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation of Germany bestows a bi-annual Sofia Kovalevskaya Award to promising young researchers.

Saint Petersburg and Moscow have streets named in honor of Sofia Kovalevskaya.

In film[edit]

Sofia Kovalevskaya has been the subject of three film and TV biographies.

  • Sofya Kovalevskaya (1956) directed by Iosef Shapiro, starring Yelena Yunger, Lev Kosolov and Tatyana Sezenyevskaya.[13]
  • Berget På Månens Baksida ("A Hill on the Dark Side of the Moon") (1983) directed by Lennart Hjulström, starring Gunilla Nyroos as Sofja Kovalewsky and Bibi Andersson as Anne Charlotte Edgren-Leffler, Duchess of Cajanello, and sister to Gösta Mittag-Leffler.[14]
  • Sofya Kovalevskaya (1985 TV) directed by Azerbaijani director Ayan Shakhmaliyeva, starring Yelena Safonova as Sofia.[15]

In fiction[edit]

  • "Little Sparrow: A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky" (1983), Don H. Kennedy, Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio
  • "Beyond the Limit: The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya" (2002), a biographical novel by mathematician and educator Joan Spicci, published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, is an historically accurate portrayal of her early married years and quest for an education. It is based in part on 88 of Sofia's letters, which the author translated from Russian to English.
  • Against the Day, a 2006 novel by Thomas Pynchon was speculated before release to be based on the life of Sofia, but in the finished novel she appears as a minor character.
  • "Too Much Happiness" (2009), short story by Alice Munro, published in the August 2009 issue of Harper's Magazine features Sofia as a main character. It was later published in a collection of the same name.

See also[edit]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Kowalevski, Sophie (1875), "Zur Theorie der partiellen Differentialgleichung", Journal für die reine und angewandte Mathematik, 80: 1–32 [permanent dead link] (The surname given in the paper is "von Kowalevsky".)
  • Kowalevski, Sophie (1884), "Über die Reduction einer bestimmten Klasse Abel'scher Integrale 3ten Ranges auf elliptische Integrale", Acta Mathematica, 4 (1): 393–414, doi:10.1007/BF02418424 
  • Kowalevski, Sophie (1885), "Über die Brechung des Lichtes In Cristallinischen Mitteln", Acta Mathematica, 6 (1): 249–304, doi:10.1007/BF02400418 
  • Kowalevski, Sophie (1889), "Sur le probleme de la rotation d'un corps solide autour d'un point fixe", Acta Mathematica, 12 (1): 177–232, doi:10.1007/BF02592182 
  • Kowalevski, Sophie (1890), "Sur une propriété du système d'équations différentielles qui définit la rotation d'un corps solide autour d'un point fixe", Acta Mathematica, 14 (1): 81–93, doi:10.1007/BF02413316 
  • Kowalevski, Sophie (1891), "Sur un théorème de M. Bruns", Acta Mathematica, 15 (1): 45–52, doi:10.1007/BF02392602 


  • Nihilist Girl, translated by Natasha Kolchevska with Mary Zirin; introduction by Natasha Kolchevska. Modern Language Association of America (2001) ISBN 0-87352-790-9


  1. ^ "Sofya Vasilyevna Kovalevskay". Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 22 October 2011. 
  2. ^ Marie-Louise Dubreil-Jacotin. "Women mathematicians". JOC/EFR. Archived from the original on June 7, 2011. Retrieved June 3, 2012. 
  3. ^ "Best of Russia --- Famous Russians --- Scientists". TRISTARMEDIA | Web Design, Web Development, Multimedia, Creative Web Solutions. Retrieved 21 October 2011. 
  4. ^ Sofya Kovalevskaya, A Russian Childhood, translated, edited, and introduced by Beatrice Stillman ; with an analysis of Kovalevskaya's Mathematics by P. Y. Kochina. Springer-Verlag, c1978 ISBN 0-387-90348-8
  5. ^ a b c d e f Roger Cooke, "The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya", Springer-Verlag, 1984.
  6. ^ a b c Gölz, Sabine I.; Timofeyev, Oleg V.; Luys; Kovalevskaya], Sofia Niron [S. V.; Charcot; Kovalevskaya], Sofia Niron [Sofia (1996-01-01). "Hypnotism and Medicine in 1888 Paris: Contemporary Observations by Sofia Kovalevskaya". SubStance. 25 (1): 3–23. doi:10.2307/3685226. 
  7. ^ George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Middlemarch, Chapter IV, last sentence.
  8. ^ Kochina, Pelageya (1985). Love and Mathematics: Sofia Kovalevskaya. Moscow: Mir Publisher. 
  9. ^ McFadden, Margaret. Golden Cables of Sympathy: The Transatlantic Sources of Nineteenth-Century Feminism. University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
  10. ^ Sofʹja Vasilʹevna Kovalevskaja, Mémoire sur un cas particulier du problème de la rotation d'un corps pesant autour d'un point fixe où l'intégration s'effectue à l'aide de fonctions ultraelliptiques du temps, IMprimerie nationale, 1894
  11. ^ Cooke, Roger (1984). The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya. Springer. p. 159. ISBN 9781461297666. 
  12. ^ Gårding, Lars (1987-01-01). "Review of The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya". American Scientist. 75 (1): 88–89. 
  13. ^ 'Sofya Kovalevskaya' on IMDb
  14. ^ 'Berget på månens baksida' on IMDb
  15. ^ 'Sofya Kovalevskaya' on IMDb

Further reading[edit]

  • Cooke, Roger (1984).The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya (Springer-Verlag) ISBN 0-387-96030-9
  • Kennedy, Don H. (1983). Little Sparrow, a Portrait of Sofia Kovalevsky. Athens: Ohio University Press. ISBN 0-8214-0692-2
  • Koblitz, Ann Hibner (1993). A Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia -- Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary. Lives of women in science, 99-2518221-2 (2., revised ed.). New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. P. ISBN 0-8135-1962-4
  • Koblitz, Ann Hibner (1987). Sofia Vasilevna Kovalevskaia in Louise S. Grinstein (Editor), Paul J. Campbell (Editor) (1987), Women of Mathematics: A Bio-Bibliographic Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, New York, ISBN 978-0-313-24849-8 
  • The Legacy of Sonya Kovalevskaya: proceedings of a symposium sponsored by the Association for Women in Mathematics and the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute, held October 25–28, 1985. Contemporary mathematics, 0271-4132 ; 64. Providence, R.I.: American Mathematical Society. 1987. ISBN 0-8218-5067-9

This article incorporates material from Sofia Kovalevskaya on PlanetMath, which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

External links[edit]